JTIII: Enough with the 'Princeton offense' talk

JTIII: Enough with the 'Princeton offense' talk
October 21, 2013, 11:45 pm
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(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

An article in Sports Illustrated 15 years ago gave life to the term "Princeton" offense." Since then there have been countless conversations and blog posts about the beauty and shortcomings off the backdoor scheme.

In the context of the Georgetown men's basketball team, John Thompson III says enough already.

"So Sports Illustrated did this article like 15 years ago where they talked about the 'Princeton Offense,' everybody that was using the Princeton offense," said Thompson, the active coach most associated with the system thanks to 25-plus of playing and coaching within it.

"So, it became a word. Now, you go over to Maryland. (Mark Turgeon) has an offense that he runs. Nobody ever talks about the "Maryland offense." Duke has an offense that they run. It's almost like people think that it's unique. Sports Illustrated give it that word, "the Princeton offense."

"Look, everyone has a system, but ours gets talked about too much. There are different ways to skin the cat. If you look at our team last year, the things we did were very, very different than what we did (the prior year) when we had Henry [Sims], Jason [Clark] and Hollis [Thompson]. But the world will say, "Yep, that's the Princeton."


Several weeks ago, Thompson provided CSNwashington with a one-on-one interview in Georgetown's basketball office about different aspects of the program, mostly focusing on the upcoming season. Near the end of the discussion, I took a shot with a specific request; one I assumed would receive the Mutombo treatment: An off-the-record session with members of the Georgetown press corps to better understand the-you-know-what offense.

The odd appeal was less about getting a formal tutorial in X's and O's, but rather a look behind the typically buttoned up program. Specifically, the offense that has helped Thompson direct Georgetown to four straight 20-plus win campaigns, three Big East regular season titles including a three-way share of the 2012-13 crown and the 2007 Final Four.

It's also the primary talking point when pundits and college basketball fans choose to bash the program for its recent NCAA Tournament struggles. Five losses as a legitimate favorite to double-digit seeds over six years kind of struggles. For many, Georgetown's use of the Princeton offense is to blame - and put Dunk City on the map.

The primary question from the general populace about the Hoyas entering the upcoming season is not about how the teams survives the loss of reigning Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter. It's not about how Georgetown will fair in the initial season of the new-look conference. It's what's up with, well, you know.

That message board hot topic isn't fading. No matter what happens during the regular season, here will be several articles written about whether "the offense" can once again take the program deep into the postseason. Combined with Thompson's moments of exasperation when asked the occasional ignorant question about the "Princeton" (not by me, no, never), I took a shot he might be game for a tutoring session for those who help shape the daily conversation.

"No," he answered.

At least there was no post-rejection finger wagging.

What did follow was a lengthy response from Thompson about the system he's been associated with for over two decades as a player and coach, including the previous nine seasons on the Hilltop and the role Georgetown's defense plays in those methodical moments. For those insistent on scrutinizing, Thompson would at least like you to remember this modified idiom: Don't judge an offensive playbook by its cover.

"So Sports Illustrated did this article...

"...If you look at our teams when we had Greg Monroe, we did things very, very differently. But the world has decided that every year we come out and this is what we're doing.

"In my head, I want to get five, skilled unselfish guys on the court. In my head, I want to get guys that can play multiple positions. I HATE the concept of, "I'm a one, you're two, you're a three, a four, a five." I don't coach like that. Now , in the course of playing, will (guard) Markel Starks , (guard) D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera have the ball in their hands bringing the ball up the court more than (frontcourt options) Josh Smith and Mikael Hopkins and Nate Lubick will? Absolutely, but if you just get guys who are basketball players, you don't have to worry is Markel the one or is D'Vauntes the one, is Markel the two or is D'Vauntes the two. They both can do things that the one does and the two does. Depending on the matchups, the scouting report, each one does it.

"I bet you (Turgeon's) beat writer has never said, 'can I come sit down and talk about the Maryland offense. I bet (Villanova coach) Jay Wright's beat writer has never done that. But because there is this word, 'The Princeton Offense,' people want to come dissect and break it down and understand. We're just playing basketball. It's not rocket science.

"The one thing that we do do that I think is different than a lot of people is that everything we do is based on reads. From day one, our guys are taught to read the game. How are you being played, how is your teammate being played and make a decision based off of that.

"Now where a lot of other systems - let's just use the Flex. You've got this one set and no matter what happens you're going to come off and you're going to pin down and you're going pop out and he's going to come and - so you're doing the same thing regardless of how the defense is playing you. The one choice you have is, OK, my man jumped over that screen so now I can come off the screen.

"I think a lot of systems are set patterns like that where no matter what, screen down, screen across, I'm going to throw it over here, I'm going to go screen there. Where with us we say, 'Well, how are you being played?' If you're being played hard, you should cut. If you're being played soft, you should come use the screen. If you cut, what does that mean to our floor balance? OK, he just cut so now we have four guys on one side of the court. That means someone has to come over here and even things out. It's reads.

"Now, two things. One, that is one of the reasons why our guys, whose names you see on trophies around this room, have had success in the pros because once they get to the league, with the 24-second clock, they're used to making decisions. You come into the league, it's not like they're running structured (plays) -- Do (NBA teams) run plays, yes. Is there structure, yes, but they have to make more reads and more decisions in the NBA, quicker, faster than we do in college and our guys are used to doing it because of how we do things.

"Secondly, you look at someone like (former Georgetown forward) Jeff Green. Jeff has been in the league seven years and has had four different coaches. So, like almost every year he's had to learn a new system. But, because he's been taught to read, he can learn your system, he can learn my system. Understanding and adapting is easy for them once they get to that level. That goes to the fact that I have heard from countless people that make decisions and pay checks in that league that your guys are prepared when they get here. They understand. That goes above and beyond the work ethic, the skill. They understand how to succeed in this league. We've had several high draft picks that are in the midst of having pretty good careers because they embraced what we did here and it's helped them tremendously at the next level.

"Jeff Green averaged like 14 or 15 points* here as a junior. He could have averaged 25 somewhere else. So people who are short-sided say, 'go to Georgetown and you're not going to score as much.' But he's going to know how to play. NBA aside, we've done a pretty good job of winning.

"So, the talk about the Princeton offense, it's talked about too much because it's almost as if everyone doesn't have a system. Just because of that one article, there is the name. There is no "Providence system."

(*)14.3 points during the 2006-07 regular season before leading the Hoyas to the Final Four.

Check back later on Tuesday for Part Two regarding the overlooked part of Georgetown's system and throughout the week for stories following Hoyas media day.